The owner of the Rithysen radio station and website was on Thursday provisionally charged with “incitement to commit felonies” after being accused of broadcasting false news about a land dispute.
Sok Oudom was charged by the prosecutor under Article 495 of the Criminal Code for a piece published Tuesday that allegedly incited people to encroach upon state-owned land, said deputy court prosecutor Long Sitha.
However, Sitha said he could not comment on the specific details of the alleged crime, which carries a jail term of between six months and two years for those found guilty, as well as a fine of one-to-four million riel (about $250 to $1,000).
“This case is being investigated,” Sitha said, declining to comment further.
The charge leveled by the prosecutor is subject to review by the investigating judge, who is expected to hand down a decision on Friday.
Kompong Chhnang provincial police chief Khov Ly said Oudom — who owned the Rithysen radio station broadcast on the 99.75 FM frequency and a sister website — also said that he could not provide specific details of the crime.
But he said Oudom’s arrest was linked to a land dispute in Toek Phos district.
“He was arrested in Kompong Chhnang City on Wednesday for disseminating [news] inciting people to encroach on land in the Oral protected area in Toek Phos,” Ly said. “We are searching for the other relevant people.”
Information Ministry spokesman Meas Sophorn said Rithysen’s media licenses had also been cancelled. He said Rithysen had previously been warned by the ministry about its broadcasts, which he said violated the license terms.
According to a statement from the ministry on Tuesday, the radio license granted to Rithysen in 2014 and a news website license from 2018 were both revoked.
“We advised and educated them one or two times, but they did not listen to the advice and they did not respect journalistic professionalism or the media law, as well as the conditions [for broadcasting] that they submitted,” Sophorn said.
“They broadcasted incitements to violence, racial profiling, insecurity and social turmoil, which are violations of professionalism and the contractual obligations that they submitted to the Ministry of information” to receive a license, he said.
After his arrest, Oudom’s sister-in-law Nuth Sovantha said that she did not know what he had done wrong and that she believed he was an ethical journalist.
“He always helped disseminate information about the difficulties and injustices of people who had met with problems in society,” Sovantha said. “Please, national and international NGOs, help find justice for him, because this is an injustice.”
“He just helped the people,” she said.
Sam Chankea, a coordinator of local rights group Adhoc, said that he visited Oudom’s home in Rolea B’eir district’s Pongro commune in Kompong Chhnang on Thursday and that he believed the arrest of the journalist was unwarranted.
Oudom had three children aged between two and eight years old, Chankea said, and the speed of his arrest, court appearance and imprisonment following his broadcast of news on Tuesday suggested that something unusual was afoot.
“Based on my point of view, the decision to cancel his license and arrest him immediately without any investigations by expert officials was wrong,” Chankea said. “This is a threat against journalistic freedom…. Please release him.”
Oudom’s jailing comes little more than a month after the arrest of another journalist, Sovann Rithy, for publishing comments made by Prime Minister Hun Sen. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists last month also called for Cambodia to release journalists from jail while the threat of catching the Covid-19 disease in jail turns a prison stint into a potential death sentence.
Huy Vannak, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior and and the president of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia (UJFC), declined to comment on the case directly but said his journalists union would monitor the case closely.
“If they do not respect professionalism and the law on the media, the Information Ministry will take measures based on law,” Vannak said. “UJFC always monitors all aspects of journalism [in Cambodia] and compiles it to keep as a document.”
“We study and choose which cases to intervene in [to help] if a journalist has just published some news that goes against the media law — but if some journalists commit crimes, we cannot intervene in their case,” he added.
Sophorn, the Information Ministry spokesman, said the imprisonment of Oudom and the revocation of Rithysen’s media licenses should not be considered an act of intimidation for journalists because Oudom had been warned about his news.
“It’s not like that,” he said. “The ministry just takes some soft measures, such as appealing and advising and educating them, before it reaches to the cancellation of their license. So, this is not strict or pressure on the freedom of journalists.”